Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit, Inc. (TCAT), Ithaca, NY, has been officially recognized by its industry peers as being the best transit system of its size in North America. Over the past several years, TCAT has made remarkable and measurable strides in ridership growth, safety practices, workforce training, community outreach and environmental sustainability.
TCAT’s service area covers a semi‑rural, albeit, cosmopolitan population of 102,000 in Tompkins County. TCAT’s 33 bus routes transport both out‑of‑county and in‑county residents to and from Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College as well as retail, entertainment, commercial, residential and professional centers. TCAT operates 22 hours a day, seven days a week and 360 days a year, only shutting down five days a year to allow all of TCAT’s employees to observe major holidays: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
In 2015, TCAT provided nearly 4.2 million annual trips compared to a little more than 3 million annual trips in 2005.
TCAT contributes greatly to the community it serves by reducing traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and the cost of building parking facilities. Access to such a robust transit system enables Tompkins County residents to save on fuel costs and enables independence and empowerment to those who have no other means of transportation.
At present, TCAT has a fleet of 54 buses, including eight electric‑diesel hybrid buses, traveling a combined distance of 1.6 million miles a year. Recent replacement buses include two new electric‑hybrid and 13 new diesel buses that adhere to federal standards in producing fewer carbon emissions.
TCAT’s Governance and History
TCAT is governed by a nine‑member Board of Directors comprised of three individuals recommended by each of its three main local funding partners: the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County and Cornell University. Nominees, in turn, are elected by the TCAT board and in that capacity serve TCAT solely and independently of their respective recommending bodies.
Though TCAT is an independent organization, the City, County and Cornell are at the very root of its dynamic history as TCAT was born from a consolidation of:
- Ithaca Transit, which was started by the City in 1962 as a municipal bus system;
- TOMTRAN, which was started by the County in 1981 as a rural transit system to maintain access to rural-based labor forces in Tompkins and, via a contract with Tioga Transport, also in Tioga County.
- CU Transit, which was started by Cornell in 1966 as a campus shuttle bus system.
City, County and Cornell leaders wisely recognized the inherent financial and overall operational inefficiencies of having separate services. In 1991, leaders established an Operating Committee to begin the long and arduous process of consolidating all three operations, personnel, bargaining units and fares into a single system and overseeing the construction of a new facility.
In 1992, the three transit agencies moved into a brand new $5 million transit facility, 737 Willow Ave., Ithaca, along with Gadabout Transportation Services, Inc. In 1992, the three transit systems began offering paratransit services, as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, through a contract with Gadabout. (Gadabout, lauded by the White House in the 1980s for its ingenuity with volunteerism, continues to substantially curb the high cost of paratransit by using what is now a staff of 25 highly‑trained volunteer drivers as well as 10 paid drivers.)
Although the three transit systems continued to operate separately under one roof sharing the cost for a single maintenance department, building maintenance, utilities and shared administrative staff, the consolidation process moved forward in 1996 when the New York State Legislature adopted a law authorizing the creation of TCAT. That year, the Operating Committee hired the first‑ever general manager, Rod Ghearing, and the TCAT name and logo were adopted and unveiled that summer. Also in 1996, the Route 10 downtown Cornell shuttle – now one of TCAT’s most popular routes – was started. Another highlight of 1996: TCAT became the first New York transit system to install bike racks on its bus fleet.
In April, 1998, the City, County and Cornell adopted a consolidation agreement. Following a study of all routes and fares, TCAT implemented a single route system and fare structure that went into effect in August, 1999. TCAT was incorporated and began operations Jan. 1, 2005, as a private, not‑for‑profit corporation and as a single employer providing public transportation services in Tompkins County and surrounding areas.
In 2005, TCAT hired its second General Manager, Joe Turcotte, who worked in management positions in larger transit systems in Charlotte, N.C., and Savannah, GA.
TCAT Funding Structure
TCAT is funded by the State Transit Operating Assistance Fund, based on ridership and miles traveled. These state funds are TCAT’s largest source of operating revenue, 36 percent of its total, with $4.6 million projected for TCAT’s 2013 $12.7 million budget.
The City, County and Cornell each provide equal funding to TCAT, 19.5 percent of TCAT’s total budget or a total of $2.5 million ($829,432 each) in 2013; a revenue source that has remained flat for five consecutive years. Other sources of operating income include cash fares, 30 percent of the total budget, including Cornell University’s volume discount program, and to a smaller extent, federal operating funds, 10.6 percent of the total budget.
In the wake of a sluggish economy that negatively impacted funding streams at all levels, TCAT took steps in 2011 to trim its already lean operational budget. Those measures, which went into effect early 2012, included implementing rural fare increases, reducing routes, putting wage freezes into place and reducing an already lean staff, now less than 120, through attrition.
As a result, TCAT management and the TCAT Board of Directors have made the need for predictable and adequate funding a top priority and continue to work together to find solutions.
Despite funding constraints, the past several years have been particularly ambitious and creative for TCAT. Projects included:
- In 2006, TCAT started an aggressive preventative maintenance program to help reduce overall maintenance costs and to increase inspection rates. The result has been a significant boost in the New York State Department of Transportation inspection pass rates, which are now nearing 100 percent.
- The 2007 rehabilitation of the Seneca Street bus stop and the 2009 opening of the flagship Green Street Station, largely with the help of federal earmarks secured by former U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey and matching state and local funding.
- A comprehensive Transportation Development Plan that went into effect Jan. 17, 2010, to offer simplified and streamlined routes and more convenient interlined “one seat” rides. The new route system was based on expert consultation, field work and extensive public feedback. The TDP also included an inaugural reservation‑only demand‑and‑response service (Route 41) that covers a larger area of lower density than a fixed route can accomplish.
- A next‑generation, home grown fare collection system called RideLogic that also went into effect Jan. 17, 2010, to replace an outdated paper pass system. The system features electronic fare media to include the durable, rechargeable Tcard and stickers and fobs embedded with proximity chips. The new system not only provides convenience for passengers, but enables TCAT to accurately and quickly track and analyze ridership data to improve operations.
Funding constraints are not holding TCAT back in its efforts to improve and grow in the future.
- An Informational Technology/Intelligent Transportation Systems Study completed in 2012 that is providing a path that will allow TCAT to provide passengers with cutting-edge real-time information, while streamlining many of the administrative and maintenance tasks TCAT performs daily.
- “What’s a Bus Stop?” Project, which seeks to clearly establish TCAT’s bus stops in urban and suburban areas which will clarify our service to riders, improve conditions for drivers and provide a basis for real-time information initiatives.
- The Regional Study Transportation Study (RTS) is a planning project developed by the Regional Transportation Planning Coalition, a group that includes TCAT and community leaders representing county governments, higher education, human services and planning interests, to study transportation in the seven-county area, including the counties of Cayuga, Cortland, Tioga, Chemung, Schuyler, Seneca, and Tompkins.
About TCAT’s work force
TCAT’s human resources are at the heart of its successes and fostering labor‑management harmony remains a top priority.
In 2004, the United Auto Workers was recognized by the TCAT not-for-profit corporation as the collective bargaining unit to represent bus operators and TCAT’s maintenance team. The first three-year contract with the UAW went into effect October 2005. The second three-year contract was signed in October of 2008 and the most recent three‑year‑contract was signed March, 2012.
TCAT is a responsible employer with a workforce of 118 that includes 78 bus operators, 18 bus mechanics and fuelers, and 22 administrative and management staff. TCAT values and its Human Resources Department pro‑actively seeks to build and retain a diverse workforce. TCAT pays competitive wages and provides a generous benefits package to its union and non‑union employees. In addition, TCAT places a heavy emphasis on safety, accident preventability and workforce training in all aspects of the operations.
TCAT strongly believes that sound customer service, communications and outreach are an underpinning to its success. TCAT strives for transparency and swift response to all feedback and passenger inquiries. In 2007, TCAT established the Citizens Advisory Committee, a group of interested riders, who once a month bring to the table suggestions, observations and constructive criticism to the attention of TCAT management. TCAT also formed the TCAT Transportation Accessibility Committee made up of riders with disabilities as well as representatives of organizations advocating for persons with disabilities. That committee also offers advice and suggestions on how to improve service for these riders. These practices have enabled TCAT to continue to grow and develop as an efficient, well‑managed, and fiscally‑sound provider of an essential public service that significantly contributes both to the health of the local economy and environment.
On a final and proud note, TCAT in 2011 was named “Outstanding Public Transportation System” (providing 1 million to 4 million annual trips category) by the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the lead industry trade association representing public transit in North America. The annual award is presented to transportation systems that demonstrate achievement in efficiency and effectiveness. The award is largely based on quantitative measures, including ridership, accident rates and preventative maintenance data.
Now that TCAT is in APTA’s mid‑size category (4 million‑30 million annual trips), competition for the award going forward will be fiercer. Nonetheless, TCAT will continue to strive to be the best, no matter its size, in North America!